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Women Workers in Egypt: Hidden Key to the Revolution

By Megan Cornish

Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, April 11, 2011


Russian Revolution leader V.I. Lenin minced no words on the importance of rebel women: “The experience of all liberation movements has shown that the success of a revolution depends on how much the women take part in it.”
During the 18-day uprising that drove Egyptian President Mubarak from power, the extraordinary role of the women gradually came to light. Independent media showed hundreds of thousands in the demonstrations, especially up front, facing phalanxes of police or soldiers. A famous YouTube video of Asmaa Mahfouz, the fierce young woman who exhorted everyone to descend on Tahrir Square for the first mass demonstration in Cairo, rocked Egypt — then the world. Throughout, females were medics, neighborhood defense patrollers, rally leaders.
In the years leading up to the January explosion, women workers were critical in transforming Egypt’s labor movement into an unstoppable force. They will be just as pivotal in the hard work of keeping the revolution on course.
Poverty and repression set the stage.
The U.S. business media monotonously stressed that the uprising crossed class lines. But only the alternative press pointed out that conditions for the country’s working and poor were the driving force. And that it was striking workers across the country who finally forced Mubarak out.
Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous country, with the most diversified economy and largest working class. Youth under 25 make up over half the population. Unemployment is the highest for women, the young, the educated and rural dwellers. Forty percent of people live in extreme poverty, surviving on two dollars a day or less. The huge informal economy has many women and youth, who are especially victimized by corrupt police-state “enforcers.”
During Mubarak’s 30-year rule, the once large nationalized sector shrank steadily. In the ‘90s, social services were severely cut back. The process of capitalist globalization, marked by privatization, deregulation, and creation of low-wage free trade zones, expanded vastly from 2004 on. While wages sank, prices rose steeply. The stage was set for labor — and women, who are always hardest hit — to erupt.
Making Tahrir Square possible.
The growing militancy of labor in recent years showed the people their power. Egyptian workers have mounted an astounding 3,000 strikes and other forms of protest since 2004.
Although women are under a quarter of the workforce, many labor in free trade zones, in textile and other public industries and in small sweatshops. They have sparked a number of the most important labor struggles.
A crucial one was the strike of over 20,000 at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in the city of Mahalla, December 2006. The women walked out first, challenging the men to follow, shouting, “Here are the women! Where are the men?” The strikers appealed to the community and other plants for solidarity, a hallmark organizing tactic when women workers are involved. Their fight led to further work stoppages at the company and swept through the huge government-run textile industry.
These public workers led the way in connecting the struggle against economic deprivation to opposing the government that is responsible. Some strike slogans were: “We will not be ruled by the World Bank!” “We will not be ruled by colonialism!”
Besides the Misr company, women have been strike leaders in the tax collectors’ movement that built the first independent union and the Hinawi Tobacco Company in Damanhour, among others.
Mahalla female and male leaders strategized a call for general strike on April 6, 2008. The government’s vicious suppression of this national strike inspired the April 6 Youth Movement, a group of young workers of both sexes — unique in Egypt — built around the collaboration of laborers in large factories and small workshops.
The Mahalla workers also initiated meetings with other public workers, as well as private companies, to establish an independent trade union federation. They achieved their goal during the January-February upsurge. This organizing was pivotal in building the strike wave across Egypt that finally drove out Mubarak, his hastily appointed vice president, and the prime minister who replaced them.
Defense of women vital.
The gains won so far still need to be consolidated. The army has not ended the state of emergency, and is making new political arrests and prosecuting defendants in military tribunals. Regime thugs are wreaking havoc with brutal attacks on Coptic Christians, and on a rally of women on International Women’s Day, despite the attempt of male supporters to defend them.
As Andrea Bauer says in the political resolution adopted at the FSP’s 2010 convention, Socialist Feminism and the Revolutionary Party: a radiant program for new generations, “Just as women’s inequality was a necessary precondition for capitalism’s rise, it remains a condition of capitalism’s survival. Women’s basic democratic rights, like the rights of people of color in the U.S., cannot be won short of the destruction of capitalism…. And it is the reason why women are the target of every series of cutbacks by the employers, every reactionary crusade by the right wing, and every assault on rights by the state.”
Whether the mighty Egyptian revolution will win this time, or fall back to capitalist counterrevolution, depends on whether Egyptian socialists seriously organize for workers’ control and vigorously defend women and the rest of those on the bottom of society. It also depends on U.S. and international radicals, feminists and working people standing up for their sisters and brothers on the front lines in North Africa. 

This article was also published by the Freedom Socialist newspaper, Vol. 32, No. 2, April-May 2011
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